How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language – Learn a Language On Your Own (Part 5)
You wouldn't believe how long I've ignored this skill! I was convinced that mastering grammar and vocabulary is, more or less, enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competencies will take care of the rest.
Boy, oh boy, was I wrong! Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.
How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language
My "Brilliant" Theory
Years ago, I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words, and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!
Not so long afterward, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. "That's my chance to socialize! That's my chance to SHINE!", a naive thought crossed my mind. I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk.
What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.
What came out of their mouths was absolute nonsense. They could have, as well, farted with their armpits. My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said. Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer, I said! And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory.
Listening as a Key Language Competence
I guess what I am trying to say is that listening is critical. Since the failure mentioned above, I've met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.
It's not that surprising when you think about it. EVERY complex skill consists of several smaller elements. These elements, in turn, are composed of even tinier parts.
Roughly said, communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself. But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more critical. That's what makes any social interaction possible.
Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills. These skills require an immediate response.
Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something). That's why it's much easier for you to remember real-life conversations than excerpts from articles.
The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.
"Smith is such a slow reader. I think I'll fire him.". Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation. However, it is essential to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influences one another.
Improve Listening Skills - Find the Right Resources
Do you have to go through the preparation before the listening practice? Of course not. But don't be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.
So, where should you start?
FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCES
You might wonder what "right resources" means. The answer is - it depends.
Beginners / Intermediate Learners
If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer, and ideally - transcribed.
If you're at least on a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.
GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY
Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something, and then you can't seem to force yourself to follow through?
Why is that?
Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you'll fail. The "activation time" should be as short as possible. Choose one or two programs to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.
Improve Listening Skills - Pre-practice Tips
Look at this example: What are you going to do - Whaddya gonna do?
Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.
That's why you pronounce - "it is" as one word - "itis."
Another example from English is the transformation of [d] and [y]. When these sounds neighbor each other, they are transformed into [dʒ]
[d] + [y] = [dʒ]
Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice
Throughout the years, I've managed to come up with quite many solutions on how I can improve my listening capabilities. Digest them at your own pace, take what you need, and ignore the rest.
- 1Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
- 2When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips
- 3Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.)
- 4Listen to the melody of the language
- 5Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language, try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table whenever you hear that some word is accented. It's my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes, when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
- 6Concentrate on sounds that are foreign to you. This technique can also help you maintain your concentration
- 7Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It's especially helpful when you're just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate different words. S ..sm...(smile?), smi...(smirk? smite?), smit... (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
- 8Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing)
- 9Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details
- 10Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube
- 11Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace
- 12Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or don't understand
Improve Listening Skills - Summary
Improving listening skills is one of the two most important language skills. Unfortunately, it's is also terribly time-consuming.
The strategies mentioned above will undoubtedly help you to get faster to the finish line, i.e., understand your target language. Still, you need to keep in mind that the secret sauce is patience.
Permanently banish any thoughts of giving up. It is the only way to become successful in language learning.
That's all, folks! Do you know other listening strategies to improve listening skills? I'd love to hear them! Let me know in the comments.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 8 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
I’m hard-of-hearing and when masks became mandated, I discovered that I am partially dependent on reading lips. I read at B-2 or C-1, but my listening skills are A-1 or A-2 in the real world of Bucaramanga, Colombia.
Do you have any suggestions for me?
Hi Susan! I am sorry to hear it, but I can’t offer any advice other than the one in the article. All the best!
Thank you for the tips. I would like to share with you another very interesting and efficient way to improve listening comprehension of a foreign language. So, at first, you need to choose a video/audio and transcribe it by yourself. Then you need to use an automated audio-to-text transcriber to check yourself. This converter supports many languages: https://audext.com/.
Thank you for sharing, Marty!
Here are my observations:
I have Spanish already and I’m doing French. After French will be Russian.
I’ve been looking for the “perfect” and “easy” category of TV to watch.
My observations: Movies are too fast and some of them use too much slang.
News is too fast.
TV shows are hit and miss.
Telenovelas or the country’s equivalent are pretty good because vocabulary is limited.
Children’s TV shows *could* be good but only if they are in original language and you can see the mouth moving. Cartoons are not as good as I expected.
Documentaries are often dubbed which means you get interferance from the source language.
Except for voice over animal shows like Deep Blue Planet.
Voice over documentaries in general tend to be easier to understand for me.
Interesting observations. Thank you for sharing! 🙂
Hello, one of the best articles I have found so far on learning and memory in general . Apologize for the mistakes in spelling and grammar below . I am in a rush to go get things done:)
Agree with many points in this artile . I had similar experiences as a native Russian. I studied English all my life only to land in the US and thought landed on Mars , due to difficulties with comprehension in the most basic situations .
I have a few comments to make about the relationship of stress and memory . We were actually doing a small research on this in medical school years ago ( I graduated from medical school in El Paso , where I could practice my Spanish skills ) . Overall, it seems that not all stress is bad, it is about ” how much stress ” and “for how long ” . In the body , stress =cortisol , too much of stress ( too much cortisol ) in the situations of “flight or fight ” response ( e.g running away from a chasing lion -don’t ask me to remember a swedish word for ” Milk ” ) . Also , Long term stress effect obviously impairs body on many levels( sleep ->memory etc )
But small amount of cortisol is actually what we call “neuroprotective ” , and may help memory ( I don’t remember if short /long term affects are stronger ) but basically if you tell me that in 3 months , I will have to take a test in Swedish language enacting a situation of me going to a swedish food store and trying to buy some milk ( that is what we required to do in Russian Language university ) -that small amount of cortisol in a non threatening situations I believe has shown to be beneficial for the brain to remember things. You probalby could search literature on your own too . Quite fascinating .
All your articles do remind me how we were trained in the Russian universites to learn foreign language ( quite integrative approach) : 1. cover basics of the language 2. Once basics grammatical structures are understood , then we were exposed to a new vocabulary list . 3 We were then forced to create our own sentces-writing was essential for me personally 4. By the end of the week we had to paire up and create dialogues with a partner in various hypothetical situations ( airport , starting a new job etc ) where we would have to use these new words ( and again , old and new grammatical structures had to be utlized as well) : yes, tons of work, tons of embarassment but also lots of fun !
Of note regarding prior article on Spaced Repetitions: they are very popular right now in medical education and I could never get into it : I would try and quit later : I need to write, draw , SAY it and understand it in order to retain the information long term ( especially in medicine and actually , any piece of information that is new to me -in native or foreign language) -so yes, I am slow , and yes , people can get FIRED in many medicine even from med school if they are slow readers ( especially with learning idiosyncracties like Dyslexia etc )
Hello, I am Dennis. My vocabulary and grammar comprehension are quite A2 more, but my biggest frustration and weekness are always listening in languages. This part really makes me down and I am very envious of my smart friends. They can use languages as their job to teach students. Like Spanish, I really can’t get many words in an audio before seeing the transcription. I am not so sure that it could work yet, still thx for your sharing about listening practice resource.
Hi Dennis! No problem – give it a try. Be sure to check other articles about listening:
Hi, I am rahmat, now, I am learning Japanese language and now training in japan for 1 years . One of mybiggest problems is listening. Every day , I Practice listening by pick up the phone, but still not enough . please give me some advice.Note..I also hearing some listening test and watch Japanese movie with subtitle but doesnot enough progress in listening .
Hi Rahmat! Thank you for your comment! Many issues can be attributed to your problems. Please drop me a message so I can give you some more precise answers.
Many thanks for these tips – they will be very useful for my B1+ learners who have terrible problems understanding the spoken word, and most especially TOEIC!
Any tips on helping kids learn to understand the target language quickly?
thanks for all the tips. i’ve tried to improve my listening skills by listening to podcasts and watching movies which is not easy. started using https://oigovoz.com and find it useful so far, hope it helps other people. thanks again.
YOu’re welcome! Thank you for the link!
I am happy to have founded your website! I am suffering to turn the key of listening / comprehension. I can speak, read or write reasonably well, but when it comes to listen and comprehend a native speaker, this is extremely difficult for me. I use to understand the context of the conversation; however, the details are absolutely important and I have not getting them. The fact is that I have just started working for an american company, in a kind of a home office job. So, I don’t have the opportunity to read the lips or gestures, or something similar. In fact, I must take part in at least one conference call per day. Do you have some specific tips for this kind of situation? In other words, how to improve the listening skills if it is not able to see the interlocutors?
Thank you for your comment! 🙂
Definitely, the quickest would be this = try to rapidly increase your passive vocabuary. Learn 15-20 new words per day for at least 2-3 weeks. After this, you can decrease the number of words you learn daily (if you want) and start listening to various recordings at least 2-3 hours per day. Your increased vocabulary should allow you to understand more after such a period of time. Hope that helps! 🙂
I listen to recordings on Youtube at 1.5x speed for a couple of days, then I speed it up to 2x speed, then I put the speed back to normal and it sounds sooo slow, I can hear every syllable and have time to register the meaning. This is the technique I use to make normal conversation speed appear slow. It takes approx 2 weeks for your brain to adjust naturally to the fast speeds that from then on normal speech speed is easy to follow. I have done it with Mandarin and should have done it sooner!
Great technique! I take the alternate approach. I speed it up and then slow it down to about 0.5 speed.
But I see that our results are similar 🙂
Hi! Thanks for the article. I’m learning 2 languages at the same time (English and Dutch) and I’m kinda frustrated because when I watch a movie or a series, there’s no problem (even if I don’t understand everything the first time). But when I talk to a native speaker, it’s really hard to understand what he/she says! I think my problem is that I’m not really focused on him/her because I’m afraid that I won’t understand what he/she says, so I’m stressed haha. That’s stupid but it’s really annoying! (and it’s even more frustrated because I can write and read in both languages :p)
You are welcome! Stress might be one of the factors. But it is also possible that you are not familiar enough with everyday speech! 🙂 I would suggest you look into it! Good luck!
Hello Bartosz, thank you for sharing your listening tips. You make some good points there!
It means a lot! Thank you very much for your comment! 🙂
Hi.I’m trying to learn English.I have some problems with speaking and listening.First speaking- when i speak don’t remember some words that i already know and I know grammar well but sometimes i confuse even word row of sentences
Listening – when i listen someone face to face
I can understand nearly everything but when i listen mp3, song, radio or news i can’t separate words.but for examples if i look at song’s lyrics once,i can separate.but if I don’t look at, i don’t understand.I need your help..
No problem. Send me an email and I will send you some suggestions how you can fix these issues! 🙂
that’s funny because I am having quite the same experience. After learning Spanish and Portuguese spending too much time on vocabulary and grammar, I sadly realised that my listening skills were quite bad. 🙁
I lived in Brazil and Argentina for more than a year and it’s just now that I can feel confident. It’s an area completely underestimated. I don’t want to learn any new language now but when I do, I will begin learning how to listen,
Great Website by the way
I know the pain. Usually other language competences are a piece of cake for me compared to listening. Thank you for your comment and kind words! 🙂
Hi Bartosz. I am learning English. I am good in reading but too bad in listening and speaking. What can I do to improve my skills? Thank’s a lot.
Hi Julian! I will be happy to help – send me an e-mail please!
No doubt your article contains alot of good tricks,nd i appreciate it. i am a french student & i m learning this language through my university.it’s been 3 yr dt m learning it. The thing which i’ve noticed earlier is that my grammar is quite good but whenever i listen something it becomes strange, i mean i cudnt understand it,bcz as u know the pronunciation of French how it sounds & how we write, so cud u plz help me to get rid of this problem,I’ll b very thankful.
Knowing grammar is certainly important in listening. However, bear in mind that you also have to have at least a decent size of vocabulary, know how the specific clusters of sounds are pronounced and have to have general knowledge of prosody of the language. But you will get there, I have no doubts about that! 🙂
Fist of all great thanks to you
I have had a hard problem with getting native speakers as my mother tongue is arabic.So I am of urgent need for your help..
Thank you for your comment. Send me an e-mail so I can give you some specific tips! 🙂
could you please help me …. my pronunciation is not good I suffer from language anxiety
I see, you can try with this article: https://www.universeofmemory.com/how-to-master-pronunciation-of-a-foreign-language/
It should help you with your problems!
Hi this site has useful tips.
Thank you! Glad you like it 🙂
This is a nice collection of tips. I’m interested in the bit about using physical action (tapping fingers) to help with separating the flow of sound into words. But I’m not sure what you mean by accented words. Could you elaborate?
Thank you ! And I’m ashamed to admit but this piece of advice might be a little bit confusing. What I actually meant is that you should try to tap your fingers every time when you hear a stressed syllable in a word.
Since every word has its accent, doing so helps to break down the constant stream of words into separate entities. This is something I’ve come up with on my own so I have no idea how effective it is for others!
Just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with everyone. Your blog is very interesting and I referred one of my students to it and she found it particularly helpful to improve her listening proficiency.
You’d make a great instructor 🙂
Thank you very much. I’m actually a memory coach and language teacher 🙂
Hello, your website is great.
I’m starting listening skills tutoring for a beginner and I need tips on how to make it as effective and efficient as possible.
Thanks in advance.
Hi Myriam! Thank you 🙂 It’s very hard to give any specific tips with such little info. Send me a message with some more detail and I’ll try to help you out!
I have many problems in my English,
Word meaning and writing. When ever I want to write something nothing comes in my mind and the word meaning also I don’t know which words to use. I can only speak the basic English. What soever I had learnt its all by looking others writing and listening their talking and reading magazine, newspapers but don’t know the deeper meaning but I enjoy reading it. I have hope to learn and improve my English but I don’t know how ??
I humbly request you to suggest me something easy way to learn.
Hi Anand, check your e-mail, I’ve sent you a message with some tips 🙂
I am facing same problem as Anand, kindly give me any tips to learn the deep meaning of any communication and to speak effectively.
There is no tip to teach you the deep meaning of any conversation! Send me an e-mail with more details about your current level in a given language and I’ll try to give you some more specific advice. If you ask a bad question, you can’t expect a good answer! 🙂